With all eyes on the framework agreement for a nuclear deal with Iran, and on the looming Capitol Hill battle to defend it, it is easy to forget that Israel is still in the process of forming its new government. With much of the drama playing out offstage, many observers are sitting back and waiting for the political wrangling over ministries and Knesset committee chairs to be over.
But some are making the case that there is more brewing than the doling out of prestige appointments to the leaders of the parties expected to be part of the fourth Benjamin Netanyahu government. A unity government, at one time thoroughly rejected by both Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, has emerged again as at least a theoretical possibility.
The notion of a unity government seemed to have dissipated after both Netanyahu and Herzog initially rejected the idea, but of course, politicians say many things and decide better of it later, as circumstances change and political winds shift. Such changes are common in forming Israeli coalitions, something the selected candidate might have as much as six weeks to do after the announcement of election results.
Two factors have contributed to the revival of the possibility of a government of national unity. One is the central role the new Kulanu party will play in any new government. The party is center-right, and that makes it the most moderate of the parties that are projected by most to constitute the next coalition. Kulanu’s leader, Moshe Kahlon, is primarily interested in social welfare issues and wishes to address growing economic concerns like rising housing prices, increasing gaps between rich and poor in Israel and declining social services. This makes Kulanu, which would also prefer not to be the party farthest to the “left” in the government, naturally supportive of bringing the Labor Party into the government (Labor makes up the overwhelming bulk of the Zionist Union coalition).
By itself, Kulanu does not explain why rumors are starting to circulate in Israel that Netanyahu is trying to woo Herzog into the government. However, combined with the new framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran on the nuclear issue, we have a very clear motivation for Netanyahu to bring Herzog into the government.
Gary Rosenblatt of the Jewish Week lays out the reasoning well: “The prime minister is well aware that if he forms [a narrow, right-wing] coalition, the crisis in relations with the White House will only deepen. And now that the U.S. and other Western powers have signed a preliminary deal with Iran, it is all the more reason for him to be able to work with Obama in the hopes of toughening up the final agreement in the next three months — and, if all else fails, getting tacit permission from the White House to strike out at Iran if it violates the deal…In a unity government, Herzog most likely would serve as foreign minister, presenting a friendly face to the world in his international role.”
The very slight possibility that some parties from the right would not join a unity government is not a threat, as the Zionist Union brings 24 seats with it, so with them and Kulanu alone, Netanyahu would have 64 seats. It all makes sense, so why wouldn’t Netanyahu do it?
The answer is that he would, if it is a real option. True, a unity government would mean there would be significant opposition from within his own coalition to settlement policy, once again. Other policies would not be as smooth as they would under an all right wing government as well. But in the post-election cool-down, it is reasonable to think that Netanyahu has assessed the damage his scorched earth campaign for re-election caused Israel and decided he must try to repair some of it.
On the surface, the notion of a unity government is good for Israel. It should allow Israel to mend fences with the Obama Administration and the Democrats and it should forestall European pressure at the United Nations and other international fora. The reality is, however, that if Isaac Herzog does agree to the unity government, it will be a disaster for his party and have deeply negative consequences in the end for Israel, the Palestinians and American policy in the region.
A Bad Idea for Labor
The Labor Party once dominated Israeli politics, but has long since fallen off its perch. For a while, Labor was able to win support by being the party of peace, representing the Israel the world could work with and admire. But in recent years, it all too often played the role of fig leaf for center-right or right-wing leadership in power in Israel. With the failure of the Oslo Accords, which were distinctly identified with Labor, it lost its credibility as a “pragmatic peace” party.
This last election brought Labor back to some semblance of relevance, but if it once again plays the role of fig leaf for expanding settlements and continued intransigence from Netanyahu, it will lose a lot of it. The campaign itself demonstrated that Labor is still dogged by many of its old problems. A lot of the increase in support for Labor was the result of voters who were disillusioned with other center-left parties, but did not want to support Netanyahu.
Labor has much to do if it hopes to make further gains in the Israeli electorate. It will move in the opposite direction if it is again perceived as a fig leaf for Netanyahu, and especially so because the best thing Labor currently has going for it is that it is the vehicle to vote against Bibi.
A Bad Idea for Israel
National unity governments in Israel are notoriously clunky machines. The junior partner is always endeavoring to show it is moderating the policies of the senior, and the party of the Prime Minister is trying to get the most out of the other side while giving it as little as possible in terms of both policy and positioning for the next election.
On the international stage, a unity government will, at best, keep Israel from facing increased pressure to end its occupation of the Palestinians. Netanyahu will still need to appease his own party and will be very fearful of giving his rival, Naftali Bennett, the means to increase his support and position himself to challenge Likud from the right. Herzog will be under constant pressure to modify Netanyahu’s positions, but won’t have enough leverage to do much.
It’s a recipe for dysfunction, both domestically and internationally for Israel.
Dangerous for the Palestinians
The one thing a unity government might be able to do is to restart bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Under current conditions, such talks are likely to be harmful, not helpful, for Palestinian aspirations.
Herzog will do nothing to convince Netanyahu to change his position on the Palestinian transitional government. Hamas remains political anathema in Israel. Nor is he likely to mollify the current Israeli policy view of the issue of Jerusalem. All he will be able to do is restore the status quo ante, which means talks that have no hope of success.
But the very existence of such talks will present serious problems for the Palestinians. At the very start, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will likely be under pressure from the United States and Europe to re-engage. But without some assurances that things would be different in this round, he will face intense domestic pressure to stay away from that process. If he refuses, it will give Netanyahu’s allies in the United States plenty of fodder, and if he agrees to talks that produce nothing but more settlements, he will give his domestic opposition ammunition.
Herzog is a moderate, and if he were Prime Minister, it is not impossible that the right combination of pressures and incentives could get him to pursue an end to the occupation. But in a Likud-led government, he cannot be more than a fig leaf, putting a kinder face on Netanyahu’s intransigence. Without him, the Palestinians have more support, at least in Europe, for pursuing their case in international fora, and the potential for more pressure on a distinctly rejectionist, right wing Israeli government. With him, they have the worst of both worlds: less pressure on an Israel with a more reasonable image but whose policies are little different from those that have caused so much international frustration of late.
A Bad Road for US Policy
Although the two-state solution and bilateral talks to get there are still American policy, the current conditions have to change if such a goal is ever to be attained. Some way of unifying the West Bank and Gaza again, some sense of incentive for Israel to make difficult decisions, a clear vision of how to resolve difficult issues like Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem needs to be presented, etc. Simply forcing talks again will work no better today than it did in 2013, John Kerry’s last attempt which ended in disaster.
Herzog does not help change the current conditions. Instead, his presence in the government makes it easier for Netanyahu to accede to meaningless negotiations. No matter how cynically one may view American policy on this, more of the same is clearly not preferable. It is just turning up the heat on the pressure cooker.
On Iran, Herzog’s presence is even more problematic. He would be the one doing the outreach to the United States and Europe, a much less abrasive voice than Netanyahu’s. But his views on Iran are fairly close to Bibi’s. He may disagree with Netanyahu’s approach and belligerent attitude; he certainly disagrees with Bibi having played partisan politics in America on this issue. But substantively, he shares Netanyahu’s concerns about any nuclear agreement with Iran. His objections will not only be presented more effectively and diplomatically than Bibi’s, they will have the added weight of coming from “the other side” of Israeli politics, demonstrating that the country is united on this point and strengthening Republican arguments.
In the end, a unity government remains the far less likely outcome of the Israeli coalition talks. While a far-right coalition, the much more likely outcome, will increase Israel’s isolation in the short term, the possibility that Israel will end up owing more accountability to the world for its policies is good for its long term interests, however counter-intuitive that might seem. As ugly as the next few years might be, they will be similarly better for Palestinian and American interests as well than a kinder, gentler face on the same policies would be.